b Papa Dog's Blog: 5. Fantastic Four

Papa Dog's Blog

A Thing Wherein I Infrequently Write Some Stuff

Thursday, December 29, 2005

5. Fantastic Four

By Christmas Eve, things began to turn a corner. The transit strike was finally over. Toussaint and the union officials wisely decided that they didn't want to spend the holiday in jail, so they reopened talks with the MTA, on the condition of a media blackout. On the 23rd, New Yorkers were able to get to work on the subway, and we were glad to have it back. I was especially pleased to be able to finally go home and sleep in my own bed. On the morning of the 24th, it seemed like life was back to normal, so much so that I happily gathered the laundry I'd neglected in my absence and spent the afternoon getting it finished.

The roommates seemed to be gone, as did much of Brooklyn. The streets near my apartment were desolate, and it seemed like the world had hunkered in as each of us went to consolidate with our clans. Between washer loads I'd head back to my room and straighten things up. The previous night when I was finally able to go home with confidence that I'd get back to the city, the Director said it must be nice for me to get back home. That I must have missed it, and missed my stuff. Dusting off that stuff on that sunny afternoon it was strange how little affection I had for any of it. I live a transient life. I spent my twenties on the road, bopping across this country, staying on friend's couches and in interchangable hotel rooms with such regularity that a bed became no more than a place to sleep, and an apartment not much more than a storage locker for my books. I have an odd quirk that every time I come home from a long trip, I fully expect to arrive at my apartment to find the building gutted by fire. Maybe I'd miss a rare book, or a piece of art given affectionately, but it's just stuff. My life on the road has fashioned a world view which dictates that the only home that really matters is the bond between my friends and I. On one thing the Director and I are certain, it is that friends are family, and what the world regards as family is, more often than not, just a random amalgamation of souls who share little more than the same last name.

If the past days had done anything, they had cemented the chosen family bond between the Director and I. Before I left for Brooklyn, we made plans to mobilize for that family's Christmas. Deb and I had volunteered to manage sprucing up the place, or, as I called it, "Queer Eye the joint." There was much to be done. We weren't sure how many would be coming, or if it would only be the four of us, but in either case, we would need a fuckload of booze. Then there was the matter of the kitchen. When the Director's wife moved out, she took all the kitchenware with her, leaving him with a knife or two, a couple of mixing bowls, some plates, glasses, and a frying pan. Because Deb intended to cook, that simply would not do. So the team was assembled, each with their own task. Deb was on food detail, and would assemble the groceries we'd need to insure a proper anti-Christmas feast. Haley was to make the list of kitchen supplies we'd need. The Director and I were on booze detail, and were to physically gather the cooking supplies necessary to pull the whole thing off.

We started late in the day, but the previous week had so retarded our sense of time that this came as no surprise to anyone. Deb and I had made plans to arrive at the loft around 2:30, but I finally made it over around 5. The bohemian squalor of the week's trials was evident everywhere. Half drunk glasses of watered down scotch were littered randomly around the living room; a beer bottle, empty but for the backwash sat beside the toilet; take out boxes littered the kitchen counters with remnants of meals hardening within them. I couldn't blame anyone for it, we were all exhausted and somewhat traumatized by the trials made more severe by the season. Somehow constellations of fuckery tend to emerge in December. Ours was the big dipper.

Haley called me into the office to help her finish the list of kitchen things we'd need. We were working from the ground up: cookware sets, knives, utensils, colander, mixing bowls, tupperware, tumblers (this crowd can never have enough glasses), and, at my insistence, a coffeemaker and grinder. I vetoed the microwave and toaster oven over Haley's protest. We looked at the edited list and Haley suggested that we bring the Director's push-cart to haul the stuff back. The words passed through my mouth before they hit my brain: "Push cart? We're men, not bag ladies, we're taking a cab back not some god damn push cart!"

Deb called to tell Haley where to meet her for groceries and we set the plan in motion. She and Haley would meet up to grab the food while the Director and I picked up booze. We set out around 5:30 to get some cash and put Haley in a cab. It was an ugly spectacle out there when we turned onto Ninth Avenue. Six vatos were standing in front of a shuttered storefront drinking cans of Colt 45 and leering at passers-by. The Holland Bar, perhaps the most disgusting place in New York City, was filled with lonely degenerates swigging Bud beneath a TV advertising a rotisserie grill. We passed what was the Bellevue, now converted into a sterile beer joint devoid of the defiant rock n roll personality that once infused its diseased walls. The Director and Haley walked close behind me as we crossed 40th. Port Authority always attracts the ugliest bits of humanity, and here too were drunken vatos, sprawled out on the ground or cursing each other in Spanish. I walked a bit ahead of my friends and stopped, seeing an altercation brewing in the near distance. Two drunk Mexicans circled each other like fighting cocks, eyes locked and lips curled into gutteral sneers. When I saw that the three of us were close, the Director and I instinctively formed a wall around Haley. I walked on the left where the fighters were cursing and he took her arm and moved her to the right. As we passed, one of the men headbutted the other. We didn't hang around to see what progress the fight would make. At the bank he withdrew $500 and gave her $400 of it. She said she'd only need half that for the groceries, but we both knew better. I hailed a cab and the Director put her inside as she sped off to meet Deb.

The next stop was to double back down Ninth to pick up the booze. I insisted we'd need at least three bottles of scotch, a bottle of vodka, and as much beer as we could haul. Deb provided us with names of two of her favorite types of wine and asked us to pick up one of them for her, so of course we got both. The Director knew the gals had an affection for Veuve Cliquot, so we picked up two of those as well. As they rang out the purchase, I erred on the side of caution and bought a bottle of the Balvenie Doublewood 12 year, a fine scotch of mellow complexion that carries just a bit more bite than the old standby of the Macallan 12. I also heartily approved of the Director's decision to get a bottle of the Laphroig 15, a solid luxurious malt of deep complexity. I rounded out the haul with a bottle of Campari, which mixed with soda is my favorite morning drink when the drinking goes that late.

We got back to the loft and put the booze away then got down to the business of cleaning. I popped on the copy of Waylon Live I'd just given the Director, and it really got the blood flowing. Washing the dishes, the opening lines of "Me and Paul" were especially resonant: "Lord, it's been rough and rocky traveling but I'm finally standing upright on the ground. After taking several readings, I'm surprised to find my mind still fairly sound."

By the time the ladies returned, I'd just finished with the dishes. We went downstairs to haul up the bounty they'd assembled. We got it put away and then we had to race against the clock to beat the one night of the year that the city does not conform to our schedules. We were off to Kmart for the kitchen supplies, and it was sure to be wearying. The Director has achieved that station in life where visting a Kmart may as well be a visit to Cuba. I don't have any affection for the place either. Shopping is anathema to my nature, and when I do go, I try my best to block out my surroundings and lazer in on what I need so as to get out as quickly as possible. Put the two of us together to descend into that hell on Christmas Eve, for housewares of all things, and you have the picture of two men clearly out of their depth.

We walked briskly down Eighth, our steps filled with dread, but also infused with urgency to get this lousy task finished. Turning up 34th, there were children bouncing everywhere, excited that the fat man was coming to commit benevolent breaking and entry. The sight made me sick. As we aproached the store I turned to the Director and said, "Perhaps the one time I'd consider being a suicide bomber is if I were to take out a Kmart or a shopping mall on Christmas Eve. You want a war on Christmas, here it is." He snickered and motioned hoisting a bazooka on his shoulder and firing it as we crossed the threshold into shopping hell.

We fell in with the herd, who were slowly waddling through the hospital-like department store. The floors and walls were a dingy white and the lights were too bright. Overhead was the admonition to "let it snow," which had to be sung by someone who never had to shovel the stuff. Impatient, I shot out around the fat couple in front of us, leisurely taking in all of the crap that they could buy, and pushed onto the escalator. Second floor had housewares and I eyed for paths without people to get us there fast. Though I knew where the housewares department was, I hadn't the slightest clue where any of the stuff we needed would be. I took Haley's list from my pocket and the Director and I looked to get the things she specified like blind men leading each other through a construction site. We were lucky to find the cookware set relatively easily and then walked in a confused stupor up the aisles to figure out where the rest of the stuff would be. Realizing that it wasn't gonna help to have two perplexed oafs navigate this mess, I left the Director to stand guard on the growing pile of kitchen supplies, while I tracked everything down. When I found the coffeemaker I heard the ballad of the reindeer with the defective nose. This was followed by an unspeakably bad techno version of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas."

I gathered up the last of it and came back to find the Director looking pretty arch. The sleeves of his blazer were rolled up, and his head was tilted down, his eyes glaring out, and a look of utter, pained disgust was all over his face. "Are we done here," he snapped. "Almost," I assured him, "I just need to grab a shopping cart. Stay right here." "I'm not going anywhere," he said. I took the stairs down to the lowest circle of this retail hell to pick up paper towels and a cart. I walked past the toy department, which was picked clean, and through electronics, where that last minute iPod was being deliberated by a confused older woman. "Silver Bells" brought home the soul-killing trauma of Christmas time in the city.

I got the cart up the rickety elevator and loaded in the supplies with the facility gained from a youth spent playing Tetris. If we forgot anything we said fuck it and took the elevator up to the line which was looked something like the end of World War 2. It had taken twenty minutes to get the things we needed, but the true torture was now upon us. At least tracking down items is activity, allowing one to tune out their surroundings. Standing in line, on the other hand, is an affront to the senses, particularly on a night like this. Looking around, it was certain that we were the only two buying household necessities. Every other cart was piled high with colorful sweaters, cheap gift boxes of candy, children's novelties, and sporting goods. Basically the kind of stuff the Director and I forgot existed because it is so alien to our worlds. We slowly marched our way towards the register and I got a case of the giggles. "What?" the Director asked. "When I met you ten years ago as a fan of your work doing an interview, the last thing I ever expected was to be standing in line in a Kmart with you on Christmas Eve. Life gets really fucking weird."

We drew into ourselves as we edged ever closer towards freedom. The Director's face grew increasingly grim, each chorus of "Jingle Bells" a knife in his brain. He surprised me when he changed his expression to pure sweetness to tell a woman that yes, she could go in front of him with her two items. He registered my expression and said, "I guess you didn't think I'd do that." "No," I said, "That's your nature, it was seeing the abrupt change from annoyance to kindness that caught me by surprise."

Finally we were at the front of the line where the lovely young cashier beamed a wonderful smile at us, which was astounding considering the hordes of anxious shoppers she had to deal with all day. She rang us out and we clunkily placed the bags on the cart and wheeled them towards the door. I asked to take the cart out to put the items on the curb and the surly security guard told me it's against store policy. "You're kidding me," I indignatly said. "Yes sir, unless you give me your ID." "Fine," I said, whipping out my ID and taking the stuff out for the Director and I to unload. I returned the cart and took out a cigarette. God it tasted good, that sweet smoke of freedom. I turned to the Director, "First we smoke, then we get a cab, and then we drink scotch." He lit up and laughed. Mohammed Islam brought his cab up to us and we loaded in for the ride back home.

When we got upstairs we were greeted like conquering heroes. The elevator doors opened to screams of feminine laughter and Haley's delighted exclaimation, "I can't believe you made it! You guys did it!" The Director scooped her into his arms and planted a long violent kiss. Such a greeting is tonic to a man.

Deb and I brought everything into the kitchen where she was making a new round of hors d'oeuvres. We unpacked everything and assigned proper places. Haley came in to fix the Director up with a scotch, and Deb urged me to follow his lead. I preferred to help put things away, and besides, I was drawn to her presence. It couldn't hold out for long -- I'm only human -- but scotch could wait for the time being.

In those brief moments of putting everything away, Deb had made the kitchen her own. Previously it behaved more like a mail room with a refrigerator, but in Deb's hands it became a living, thriving part of the household. The stove looked as if it had always had a variety of pristine cookingware on it, and the counters seemed to have had proper cutlery all along. The glasses drying on the racks above the sink sparkled, and the preparation island showed the progress of creating a bountiful feast. I could see all was in good hands, so I excused myself to have that scotch.

The living room had become a makeshift holiday table. Sitting in chairs beneath the Director's walls of books, we were gifted with a spread of fine cheeses and meats, olives and sundried tomatoes, pate and salmon, all arranged with care. Each platter was colorful, garnished with parsley and greens, toothpicks with bright clown heads decorating the food in the right places. That sort of thing bewilders me, and I suspect the Director as well, for we appreciate it, but would never think about the presentation of a meal. It reminds me of a remark a girl I loved once said when watching me make a sandwich, "Observe the batchelor as he cuts from the block of cheddar to finish off his sandwich. And now he puts the bread on top and selects a plate, but only because he is out of paper towels."

I sat before this simple, splendid meal and savored the Laphroig. Vocal jazz from the 40s was playing in the office, prompting Haley to intermittently sing along. The Director looked at her with smitten admiration, and from time to time they'd moon over each other like kids. Deb, meanwhile, was conducting alchemy in the kitchen. If Christmas felt like this all the time, I'd have no trouble with it at all.

After a certain amount of persuasion, we managed to coax Deb out of the kitchen to enjoy her handiwork. We had each done our jobs and the mission was accomplished. We took this sudden bachelor's realm and created a functional celebration home. "It's like we're the Fantastic Four or something," the Director later remarked, "which makes Haley the Human Torch, but Deb could never be the Invisible Woman." "No," I agreed, "not by a long shot."


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